From Iconic Building to Wholesale Data Center

May 25, 2017

Because of a booming financial services industry, a growing population of large technology companies and emerging tech startups, and an ever-increasing need for IT services and capabilities, the Toronto area has more demand than ever for data center construction.

One of the data center providers expanding to the Toronto area in the very near future is Digital Realty. The company is in the process of converting the iconic Toronto Star printing and distribution building into a revolutionary new wholesale data center ideal for hyperscale companies, financial services companies and other enterprises.

To learn more about the Toronto data center being constructed by Digital Realty, we recently sat down with Scott Davis, the executive vice president and chief technology officer at the company.

We talked about the difference between starting a data center project from the ground up vs. renovating an existing building, the advantages that this particular facility presented to the company, and how this new data center design will differ from those that have come before it.

We understand that the building Digital Realty is converting into a data center has a rich history in Toronto. Tell us a bit about the building itself and why it was chosen to become a data center.

Scott Davis:The building is roughly about 25 years old and is quite large, upwards of over 675,000 square feet. The facility was purpose-built for the Toronto Star, one of the bigger Toronto newspapers, and served as a printing and distribution center for the publication. It has a large, open layout to accommodate those printing presses with a huge, high-bay area that was formerly a mailroom and several loading docks.

With the decline of print circulation, this facility was recently shut down. We happened to already be in Toronto scouting sites when this listing became available in early 2016. We were really attracted to the overall scale and high-bay structure with ample headroom for plenums and things of that nature.

The facility also had a utility substation adjacent to the property, a big plus for buildings with high power demand. Getting a big delivery of power sometimes takes quite a bit of time. Normally, you'd have to run on a temporary service until the full-sized permanent service was available. That's not necessary with the substation already on-site.

Obviously, this building wasn't purpose-built to be a data center. What challenges does this create? And how does retrofitting an old building like the Toronto Star printing facility into a data center compare to building a new, purpose-built data center?

Scott Davis: With a greenfield data center, the design is very intentional. The design takes logistics into account. For example, we’ll work to identify and resolve how equipment will flow from loading dock, to storage, to computer room.

In the case of the Toronto Star building - because of the previous functions of the building - this facility is not square or rectangular by any means. It does become a bit of a puzzle for our architects and engineers to figure out how to best use every piece of available space.

The other challenge with a renovation is you start with demolition, as opposed to a greenfield project where you start with construction. We're very fortunate because the whole first phase is a simple conversion of the mailroom area. Because it was so expansive, we just had to take out some minor equipment and patch some floors.

It sounds like brownfield redevelopment and turning an existing building into a data center is a challenge. Are there any benefits to starting this way, or is it always better to start with a blank slate?

Scott Davis: There are major benefits with a brownfield project – such as having an existing building with existing infrastructure. When looking at speed to market, a brownfield structure definitely has some benefits because of what’s already in place. Certain aspects of permitting are already taken care of and plumbing and power are ready. Even something like parking - it's all already there.

But then it comes down to how much of the original structure can you keep and how much you have to repurpose.

Cost savings is also something to consider. Depending on the market, you may be able to get a discount on the building versus buying land and building the facility from scratch. It depends on the structure and being able to find the right place with the right specs at the right time.

Data center security - both cyber security and physical security - is increasingly important to data center customers and their end users. What safety measures are being taken to keep the building secure?

Scott Davis: The building will follow form and function with most of the data centers that we build and operate today. We plan to keep the already-existing perimeter fence and add an entrance gate with a card reader. Visitors will be screened using a camera and a microphone. Guards can then grant access remotely.

All access to the building will be controlled through one common entrance that will be centrally located and equipped with interior and exterior cameras. We'll have a 24/7 guard staff to keep an eye on the facility and help process visitors and service clients.

To get into the building, entrants must use their badge for authentication as well as a biometric fingerprint scanner which will allow them to enter the security portal. These portals have sensors that allow only one person at a time into the building through the revolving door, preventing badge pass-back concerns. In the facility, all rooms are secured with badge access.

From a cybersecurity standpoint, we don't run the servers in the data center. These are strictly a customer's asset, so they set up their own network with their own servers and cybersecurity. What we do is provide multiple and diverse pathways to get in and out of the building. It's not uncommon for these customers to bring in multiple carriers to ensure redundancy and diversity across carriers so they will enter and exit the building via different paths and create a loop. If one of those loops gets accidentally cut by a backhoe down the road, they still have an intact connection with their other paths.

For the systems we use to operate the building, we have sophisticated firewalls to protect our own network, but most of our activity is contained within the building so there's not a lot of opportunity for others to break into our network.

We understand that some new design considerations and specifications were taken into account in the creation of this data center. How is this data center unique compared to the other Digital Realty data centers?

Scott Davis: Typically, when building a data center in the past, we’d essentially build a room that’s about 10,000-11,000 square feet and deliver a certain amount of power to that room. That is sort of a one-size-fits-all, more generic build for us.

These builds weren't very customizable for our customers - sometimes the power density was too much, sometimes it was too small and sometimes it was just right. One of the practices we started to implement in 2014 to increase the flexibility of our facilities is to make it possible to vary power from room to room based on customer preferences.

This new building in Toronto takes it one step further. We broadened our window of power variation for our customers. Our power can range anywhere from 100 watts to 300 watts per square foot. We wanted to create a facility that appeals to a broad spectrum of customers, from fintech and pharma, to cloud and hyperscale.

This design has the ability to create a low-redundancy and a high-redundancy offering. This approach gives us the opportunity to present more options to our potential customers based on their budget, security and redundancy needs. At the end of the day, this will provide a tailored solution for the customer.

Also, as opposed to building out one phase and leasing out that space, then moving on to the next phase like we normally do, we're building what we call the "backbone infrastructure" which consists of our normal computer rooms, but without air conditioning and PDUs in it yet. Once the customer decides exactly what they need, we can finish building the rooms exactly how they need them. This means we won't have any stranded infrastructure, resulting in a more efficient delivery of power and space.

Another thing we are taking into account is the value of having inventory of space and product available. The ability for many of our customers to accurately perform long term forecasting for their data center needs is increasingly more difficult due to the dynamics of their business and rapid adoption of their services. In a situation where a product experiences rapid adoption or a merger, a customer's timeline for additional data center space is nearly impossible to predict. In this first phase, we're going to make an educated guess about what is the "sweet spot" in density and redundancy for our customers and then be able to quickly build on to what they need with our backbone infrastructure. If a customer's needs fit perfectly into one of our already built rooms, great, but we also have the agility to accommodate any of their requirements.

What new features will this data center have in comparison to other, more traditional data centers? How will this new design and these new features benefit the end users of this data center?

Scott Davis: One big benefit that we see for our customers is access to more customization. They'll be able to look down the checklist and get exactly what suits their objectives.

In the end, it's a cost-effective solution for all parties involved because we are only building what they ask for, and they are only paying for what they need.

Learn more about Digital Realty’s Toronto data center.

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